Imagine that you’re making a movie, and the baby you’ve arranged to be on set for half the day has a fever. No problem, right? You have a backup baby (and producers who plan ahead). Only, your backup baby isn’t available either.
You are babyless. What do you do?
If you’re Clint Eastwood, you grab the closest piece of plastic you can find in the cabbage patch. American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall explained that they used the absurd baby doll because one infant was sick and the other didn’t show (prima donna), and while it’s appropriately being mocked, it also provides a great lesson about bad solutions to production day problems. This may be what a no-budget production has to deal with, but American Sniper is an Oscar nominee with a $60m budget.
How could something like this get through? Most likely the American Sniper fake baby is the result of the Eastwood Laziness Problem that also often sees the first take as the only one worth shooting. Even so, it’s baffling that – in a universe where Marvel got all of the Avengers back together for shawarma and pick-up shots are the norm – a movie like this couldn’t have fixed this scene. Or, better yet, fixed it on the day.
To be fair, not having the baby you expected is a problem, but there have got to be better solutions (even on-the-fly) than sending a PA to Toys ‘R’ Us on the double. How vital was it to see the baby in that particular shot? Could the blocking be changed so that you can still use the set, but don’t need to see the baby? Is there something the camera can do to minimize the issue?
In the scene, Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle picks up the infant from his wife’s arms, carries the child around the room during their conversation and then lays the boy down in a crib. It’s when he picks the baby up and when he walks around that we get the clearest shots of the unmoving face that makes you question why they’re both treating Pinocchio so gingerly.
Was it paramount that Kyle pick up the baby in that scene? Symbolically, plot-wise, otherwise? Or could they have shot the entire sequence with the baby obscured in his mother’s arms? Or in the crib? Why was shooting the scene under silly, amateurish conditions a better option than not having a baby in the scene at all?
The point to all these questions it that it feels like Eastwood and company didn’t ask any – they chose to do the scene as-is without adjusting for the super fake baby forced into their laps. They were faced with a problem, but didn’t alter the course, and the result is a scene that sticks out as an embarrassment.
For everyone else, especially aspiring filmmakers, it’s a reminder that it’s worthwhile to ask important (often obvious) questions whenever a panic problem hits your production during the shoot. “Let’s just pretend this is a baby!” may not be the best answer.